As readers of The Spectator will know, I have been banging the drum for free schools for eight years – almost as long as Michael Gove, who first started talking about them in 2007. But it has been hard to persuade people of their virtues without any results to point to. Education is plagued by crackpot theories and un-evidenced policies and free schools were often dismissed as just another fad.
Until this week. Now, at last, the advocates of the free schools policy have some results to point to – and they are spectacular. Last week, King’s College London Mathematics School, a specialist sixth form college that opened in 2014, topped the Times’s A level results table. Ninety-nine per cent of its pupils got A*/A/B or better, making it the top performer in the country – not just better than every other state school, but better than every fee-paying school too.
Other free schools that got great A level results include the London Academy of Excellence in Newham, which got 15 of its students into Oxbridge, and Harris Westminster Academy, which saw 70 per cent of its pupils secure places at Russell Group universities.
Yesterday’s GCSE results for free schools were equally impressive. Reach Academy Feltham, which opened in 2012, saw 96 per cent of its pupils get good GCSE results in both English and maths. That could be enough to make it the most successful non-selective secondary school in the GCSE results table when it’s published later this year. Critics will claim the school only managed to achieve these results because its pupils are atypical, but the only sense in which they’re unusual is that an above average number of them are from disadvantaged backgrounds – 34.3 per cent compared to a national average of 29.3 per cent.
Other free schools that knocked it out of the park yesterday include Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School in Blackburn, Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, King’s Leadership Academy in Warrington, the Greenwich Free School in south-east London, Holyport College in Berkshire, Dixons Kings Academy in Bradford and the West London Free School in Hammersmith, the school I co-founded in 2011. The results these schools got yesterday weren’t simply good. They will put them in the top five percent nationally – in some cases, the top one per cent. And like Reach, most of them are in deprived areas with above average numbers of disadvantaged children.
We won’t know how well the entire free school sector has done until the DfE releases its quality assured data later in the year, but looking at results across the piece my guess is they’ll be the highest-performing category of schools for both A levels and GCSEs. No doubt the critics will still carp and come up with ingenious reasons as to why these results should be discounted. But parents will vote with their feet. Secondary free schools are already the most popular type of school in the country – the West London Free School is one of the 10 most over-subscribed comprehensives in England – and, after these results, the rush will become a stampede.
Michael Gove should be proud. He held-fast to his position in the face of overwhelming enemy fire, some of it from his own side, and in the past seven days he has been vindicated. Not a fad, it turns out, but the most successful education policy of the post-war period.